Williamtown Cancer Cluster Health Study

Earlier this week the Government provided a response to a question asked by Labor's shadow health Minister, Walt Secord, late last year in the Legislative Council. In November, Mr Secord requested that the Government conduct an urgent investigation into the possibility of a cancer cluster occurring within the Williamtown red zone.

He noted that the Victorian Government had recently conducted a similar investigation concerning Fiskville in regional Victoria, which confirmed a statistically significant increase in cancer in the area. On Tuesday this week, a response by the Hon. Niall Blair, representing the Minister for Health, noted:

NSW Health is currently reviewing statistical analyses of cancer data in the Williamtown area, with the assistance of the New South Wales Chief Health Officer's Environmental Health Expert Advisory Panel.

As the local member of Parliament representing Williamtown in this place, I was relieved to hear that NSW Health was conducting this study, even though I was frustrated that it had taken so long. My community has been asking these serious questions for years now and too often has heard from government agencies that they do not know enough about what the contaminant does.

It was left to the impressive investigative journalism of the Newcastle Herald and award‑winning journalist Carrie Fellner to piece together the facts, which ultimately revealed that over a 15‑year period a sparsely populated five-kilometre stretch of Cabbage Tree Road in the red zone had more than 50 confirmed cases of cancer.

As one would imagine, the media reports of a possible cancer cluster were met with horror, combined with a sinking sense of inevitability because these residents have seen what has happened to their loved ones and their neighbours. Since then, they have been waiting for the New South Wales Government and the Commonwealth Government to connect the dots. They live in the area immediately south of the Royal Australian Air Force [RAAF] base on land contaminated by the RAAF and have been using water contaminated by Defence for years. They have lost too many people to cancer.

As I said, I was relieved to hear about this study by NSW Health, because it might connect the dots and see that these families are offered some support in the form of land buybacks so that they can escape the area they once loved but now fear. I also learned that the statistical area which was being analysed and cross‑referenced with data held by Cancer Council NSW was the SA2 census area covering Williamtown, Medowie and Karuah.

Clearly I am not a statistician, but, given everything this community has gone through on top of the contamination—including a recent bushfire that tore through the area, and a whopping big sand mine that last week was given a tick of approval by the Department of Planning and Environment—I would have thought someone in the Government would have taken a closer look. The population spread of the relevant SA2 includes 14,000 people, stretching all the way from Karuah—30 kilometres from the contamination—through Swan Bay to Medowie and finally encompassing Williamtown and Salt Ash.

That means more than 11,000 people in that census statistical area live nowhere near Williamtown. In fact, more than 75 per cent of the people studied have nothing to do with the contamination. To make matters worse, Fullerton Cove, which is clearly within the contamination area, was not included in the study area.

I had grave concerns when I heard about this. My parliamentary colleagues Tim Crakanthorp, the member for Newcastle, and Meryl Swanson, the Federal member for Paterson, shared those concerns. We were informed about this process only yesterday morning in a meeting in Parliament House. Just as the Government's response in the Legislative Council on Tuesday indicated, we were led to believe the process was ongoing. It was not. Last night at about 7.00 p.m. we learnt that the study was completed and a determination had already been made.

The health department has concluded there is no evidence of a cancer cluster in Williamtown. I do not understand how the Minister, and later the government officials, could come to this conclusion when almost 80 per cent of the people included in the study do not live in Williamtown. The study appears to be meaningless and harmful.

This has caused a firestorm of anger, disbelief and despair among the affected families—and rightly so. However, this is only the most recent thing the Government should be ashamed about. This Government continues to lurch from stuff-up to stuff-up, without the slightest concern for the people living this awful nightmare. Indeed, it shows how low this issue is on the Government's priority list. So my initial relief has once again turned to despair. Today in question time when I asked the Premier whether she stood by the findings of the study, she refused even to acknowledge it.

The Premier should start treating these families with some respect.


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